Saturday, January 10, 2009
China isn't really known for environmentalism. But the surprise is that it has had basic energy conservation practices in place for years.
On my first visit to Shanghai in 1994, for example, I was surprised to see solar water heaters crowding the rooftops of practically every apartment block - something we don't see in the United States even today. I spend several months a years in China and things have only improved since then. Energy-saving fluorescent lamps are now the rule rather than the exception in China, not only in commercial and industrial buildings, but in residences as well. Even more efficient LED lighting is widely used in traffic signals, street lighting and many other applications.
While China's streets are regrettably teeming with more cars than ever, they're also increasingly well populated with innovative and affordable electric bicycles, scooters and utility vehicles. Granted, since these are recharged by being plugged into the nation's largely coal-generated electrical grid, their environmental friendliness remains arguable, yet they're nevertheless a more visible sign of innovation than we find on our own SUV-clogged streets. And while American automakers are foundering thanks to the incredible shortsightedness, stupidity and greed of upper management, their Chinese counterparts are almost certainly hard at work on the design of zero-emission vehicles that will someday ease China's pollution troubles, and perhaps our own as well.
None of this is to excuse China's deficiency in other areas of environmental policy. Its tolerance for industrial polluters, in particular, is a disgrace. Yet this is a calculated economic decision aimed - with spectacular success - at attracting foreign investment. Lax restrictions on polluters are one major reason so many American corporations have moved factories to China. Yet this current lassitude will also come to an end when the Chinese government's environmental priorities inevitably supersede those of economic growth.
When will this happen? In the United States, gross industrial pollution continued utterly unhampered for a century. At China's current rate of progress, and despite its posturing to the contrary, industrial polluters may well be brought up to Western standards within the next decade.
What's more, when China decides that it's ready to tackle its environmental problems full force, it'll move quickly. Unlike us fiercely independent-minded Americans, the Chinese people, for the most part, are far more amenable to sweeping change being imposed from the top down - a deep-seated cultural trait that stems, not from China's trifling time under communism, but rather from its nearly 3,500 years under dynastic rule.
The result is that official pronouncements - whether they concern spitting on the sidewalk, smoking in restaurants or wasting electricity - are acted upon with a sense of earnestness and devotion that's quite impossible to imagine here in the United States. So, when an exemplary environmental policy finally reaches the top of the agenda, China may yet become Mother Earth's best friend.